Thursday, April 24, 2014

DC Visit

I had a business trip to Washington, DC, last week for some meetings related to my consulting business.  I drove up on Monday - drove rather than fly because flying is no fun anymore.  Driving, at least for trips of up to maybe 10 hours in the car, is much more enjoyable.  No TSA screening, go at your own pace, no delayed or cancelled flights, much more comfortable seats, nobody with a cold sitting next to you (unless you take them along, in which case, it's your fault), stop when/where you want, big choice of places to eat, the scenery is much better, it takes about the same amount of time once you include the drives to/from the airport and waiting time, you have a car when you get there, and it's much cheaper all the way around.  To me, it's a no-brainer.

I had meetings on Tuesday through lunch, and then had time to myself, so I hit the National Gallery of Art.  It's one of my favorite places in the world.  And, of course, they were in between exhibits.  Not only that, but the East Wing is undergoing renovation, and everything there is closed.  Dang!  But the regular galleries in the West Wing were still open, so I wandered through them.  As usual, I had my sketch pad with me and made a lot of quick sketches with notations.  To me, a good art museum is a great learning tool.  I see how the really good painters created their works, and I can try to transfer that knowledge into my own.  However, I find that I keep re-learning the same lessons.  Here's what I noticed this time:

  • Accurate but loose drawing.  The masters make it look easy: their brushes quickly describe the form.  Their proportions are spot on, the brushwork is loose, and it looks like it was effortlessly done.  Right, just like an Olympic figure skater's moves are effortlessly done.
  • Small areas of strong color against large areas of muted color.  At least until the Impressionists, this was true, especially for people like John Singer Sargent and James Whistler.  The muted colors provide the setting for the richer colors to sing.  Actually, this is a good metaphor.  Think of a music band: most of the musicians are providing the beat, the underlying melody, and supporting vocals, while the singer or lead guitarist (or whoever) works their magic.  Bright color against more muted colors does the same thing.
  • Most edges are softer.  This is a subtle thing that most non-artists miss.  Look at the edges of the forms and most edges are soft, or slightly blurred, and some are lost altogether.  The hard edges will be found where the painting's center of interest is.  Our eyes are drawn to brighter colors, harder edges, and higher value contrasts (light/dark contrasts).  So artists use more muted colors, softer edges, and lower value contrasts in the supporting elements, and the opposite around the focus.  I try to as well, but my natural tendency (like most people) is to try to delineate every individual thing very clearly.  So this means harder edges and more detail and development than is usually needed.  Save that for the main item.

Here's a clip from my sketchbook.  I found Rembrandt's self-portrait and found it incredibly moving and powerful.  In my opinion, one of the finest portraits ever painted.


This is a typical set of notes from studying a painting: a quick sketch, some identifying information, and then notes on what I see as to how it was painted.  In this case, the painting was done with muted colors and soft (or lost) edges everywhere except the face, which was richly colored and done with thick swirls of paint.  Rembrandt's focus was on the eyes.  They were the most defined section of the painting, and the sheer intensity and humanity in those eyes is astounding.  Here is a man at his rawest: capable, vulnerable, successful, and a failure (he was financially ruined at the time of this painting).

I saw artist easels in most of the rooms.  Man, I would love to be able to spend time in there, making copies of some of those paintings from the real thing rather than a photo in a book!  The difference is huge, even in a high-quality reproduction.  The real thing has subtleties that you just don't see in a reproduction, I don't care who makes it.  So what would I copy?  Rembrandt's self-portrait.  Anything by Sargent or Whistler.  El Greco's "Laocoon" or "View of Toledo".  Velasquez.  A good Raphael Soyer.  A dozen others ... and those are just the ones I saw that day.

On Wednesday, I had another business meeting in the morning, and in the afternoon I went to the Museum of American Art.  More drawing from amazing paintings.  A painting by John White Alexander of a woman backlit in front of a window was stunning in its handling of light.  A huge, mural-sized painting by Thomas Hart Benton was complex, carefully structured, and full of life.  A Sargent painting about knocked me out.

Needless to say, I was a happy man!

So that was DC.  Next I went to Baltimore to visit my aunt and cousin.  We had a great time, as always, and I love visiting with them.  While I was there, I went down to Maryland Institute College of Art, or MICA.  I was a student in MICA's continuing education program back in the mid-90's.  Now, three of my fellow UNCA students are teachers there.  One of them, Paul Jeanes, invited me to come talk to his class.  As I've noted here before, this sort of thing really energizes me.  I focused my talk on how my work has developed since graduating, including how it was affected by my Iraq and Afghanistan deployments.  The students were very interested and asked lots of really good questions.  Only a couple of them went to sleep.  I wound up talking with them for far longer than planned, but we were on a roll, so it was all good.  And I got to see one of my teachers from way back when.  Michelle LaPerriere is still teaching there, and it was really wonderful to see her again.

All in all, a great trip.  And now, four days after getting home, I'm still not caught up on all the work, home, art, car, and other things that have been lying in wait for me.  Maybe next week ...


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